By Joe McElwee
Special to The Times
August 31, 2003
ThE old Beatles song kept replaying in my head:
"Every summer we can rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight, if it's not too dear."
I guess it wasn't just in my head.
"Dad, please stop singing that song," said Steve, my 17-year-old son.
I yanked an imaginary zipper across my mouth.
FOR THE RECORD:
An article in the Aug. 31 Travel section about a bicycle tour ("Hill and Dale on the Isle of Wight") misspelled the town of Niton as Nitton. Also, the island is southwest of London, not southeast, as stated in the story.
Steve and I were riding the Wightlink ferry across the Solent River toward the Isle of Wight. It was June 2002, and this was our last vacation together before his departure for college.
At Ryde, population 26,000, the largest city on this 147-square-mile island, we hoisted backpacks onto our shoulders and headed down the gangway. Hawsers bearded in algae dripped from the bows of schooners tied to the dock. Victorian homes basked in the sunshine from their hillside perches. Their pastel colors wavered in flickering shards across the water's surface.
Only 50 miles southwest of London and just three miles off the English coast, the Isle of Wight transports visitors to a unique time and place. The island stretches just 18 miles, from the northern city of Cowes to St. Catherine's Light House at its southern tip, but it deserves more recognition than a line from a Beatles song. More than half the island has been officially recognized as an area of outstanding beauty. But like most baby boomers west of the Atlantic, I knew nothing about the place except what I learned from the "Sgt. Pepper" album — at least until I researched information about bicycle trips through Britain.
My homework paid off; our expenses for three days on the island — including postcards, brochures and donations to churchyard poor boxes — averaged $160 a day. That's a hefty savings when compared with the cost of organized bicycle tours throughout Europe.
My research on the island turned up some interesting facts too. Around 6000 BC the Isle of Wight was connected to the British mainland, but as the great ice sheets of that era melted, the sea carved this island from the shoreline. In the 11th century, William the Conqueror built Carisbrooke Castle here, a 7-acre complex of buildings and earthworks that still draws tourists. Alfred Tennyson, Queen Victoria's poet laureate, lived here in the 19th century.
The Isle of Wight seemed an excellent place for us to soak up history and culture.
Our cycling adventure began on High Street, across from St. Mary's Church at the Autovogue Bicycle shop, where we connected with a road called the RTI (Round the Island), a 62-mile trail that loops the island's perimeter. Blue-and-white signposts in the shape of arrows point the way. We strapped our gear onto our rear fenders and headed clockwise.
Walled in by hedgerows
Twelve miles east of Ryde, we turned south. Traffic evaporated as we rolled through a quilt of farmlands. Scattered cows grazed in open fields. Chickens clucked. The scent of damp peat stung our nostrils.
Lower Adgestone Road, near Yarbridge, took us deep into hedgerow country, and the bike path narrowed into paved slivers only 6 1/2 feet wide. Impenetrable hedges hugged the road and towered overhead like the nave of a medieval cathedral that filters the sunlight with an emerald tint.
Puddles on the RTI occasionally splattered our socks. A loose stone could flip our bikes. Thorns from strewn hedge clippings might puncture a tire. And mounds of horse manure made tempting targets for a teenage cyclist.
"Dad — watch this!" Steve aimed for another buzzing pile.
"Car!" I yelled to my son as two headlights crested the hill in front of us. A gleaming grille filled the width of the road. Bumpers thrashed through the wild grass hanging over the edge of the macadam.
"Steve, pull over."
A bespectacled driver saluted me at the breakneck speed of 4 mph. The roof of his vehicle barely reached as high as my rib cage. He plowed to a stop as he pulled alongside me.
" 'Ave you enough room there, mate?"
"Sure. I can squeeze in three, maybe four more molecules." I playfully tapped the hood of his car and chuckled along with the driver.
"Splendid," he said, giving me a wink and zooming off at warp 6 — mph.
By late afternoon we reached Ventnor. Agents at the Information Bureau helped us book a room. Later, showered and dressed in fresh clothes, we struck out for a hot meal at the Spy Glass Inn overlooking the English Channel, an establishment that welcomed "muddy boots and well-behaved dogs on leads."
The next morning, we picked up the RTI in Niton on the southernmost tip of the island. Hills along this section posed our first serious challenge. Headwinds thrashed us as we approached the Needles, Britain's tallest chalk cliffs. Bleached white in the sun, these colossal formations swept the waters in a wide arc melting into the horizon. The dazzling view from the top was worth our Herculean efforts to get there.
From prehistory to Saxon times
NEAR Brightstone, off the southwest coast, we entered dinosaur country. About 100 million years ago, England was connected to continental Europe. Paleontological dig sites reveal that this area once crawled with dinosaurs: iguanodons, sauropods and Neovenator salerii. This last creature was named for the Salero family, on whose nearby farm the flesh-eater (neovenator means "new hunter") was found in 1978. Weighing in at 1,500 pounds, with fangs like scalpels and claws 5 inches long, this monster was a slicing, dicing carnivorous machine. Only a few neovenator remains have been found. A complete skeleton still eludes scientists.
At the village of Freshwater Bay we stopped at All Saints Church, dating from Saxon times in the 11th century. Its cemetery, the largest on the island, contains 4,500 graves. We wandered through the moss-stippled tombstones etched with skulls, hourglasses and calligraphic epitaphs.
"Yo, Dad. Here's one from 1706."
Steve knelt and traced the faint inscription with his finger. "Here lyeth bodies of John Towple Aund Elizabeth his Wife."
We stretched out beneath the twisting boughs of a yew tree for a short break. Spirits of the dead were once believed to rise through the yew, creating the custom of "knocking wood" to ward off evil.
Steve took a gulp from his water bottle, and we pushed off again. Our next stop was to be Yarmouth. Swans glided beside us, preening and fluttering their wings, as we pedaled in single file along a dirt canal path. At 4:15 we arrived at our destination. Huffing, puffing and saddle-sore, I caught up with my son, who was riding in figure eights around an empty parking lot.
"Showing off, eh?"
"Just killing time, Dad."
Ha. Wait until he's my age.
Real British gastronomy
The Information Bureau booked a room for us at the Bugle, a Tudor inn dating from the 17th century that commanded pride of place on the Yarmouth town square.
After cleaning up, we paid a visit to Yarmouth Castle, a fortress with fearsome parapets looming 100 feet above the Solent River. Through a window set into the floor of an upstairs chamber, we studied the robed hand of a statue buried in the castle's interior. When Henry VIII ordered the destruction of Catholic churches throughout his kingdom, masons used the stones and sculptures like the one interred here as materials for His Majesty's forts.
Later we stopped for dinner at a pub tucked away in a cobblestone alley. When the waiter arrived, I picked up the menu and pointed to "bangers and mash" (pork sausage and potatoes), while my son ordered "bubble and squeak" (potatoes and cabbage). A basket of hot garlic bread appeared on our table. Steve tore off a piece and spread a slab of melting butter into the doughy pores.
"I hope I don't get another purple hockey puck," he said.
"You mean blood pudding?"
Before my son could answer, the waiter placed our platters on the table and scurried off. Steve crossed his arms and stared at the shredded leaves of cabbage framing his mashed potatoes. He stabbed the food with the prongs of his fork, leaned in for a sniff, and scrunched his nose.
"What's that next to your potatoes, Dad?"
"I don't know. Sausage? At least it's not a hockey puck."
"Yeah. But it could be the thumb from a goalie's mitt."
After dinner we strolled to a waterfront park near Friar's Lane. Offshore, a buoy gonged in memory of the Yarmouth Roads Wreck. Local anglers discovered the site in 1984 when pewter mugs, scraps of Genoese tin and chunks of glazed pottery entangled their trawl nets. Archeologists think the artifacts may have belonged to the Santa Lucia, a Spanish merchant vessel that sank in 1567 on the way to Flanders.
Finally we headed back to the Bugle. At midnight, the bells of St. James Chapel tolled the new day, a nightly observance for 300 years.
On the last day of our ride, Steve waited outside the Whippingham post office as I tried to buy stamps. While standing in line, I noticed a jar on the counter pasted with a label that read "Used Stamps for Donkeys." When I reached the clerk's window, I motioned toward the jar.
"What's that about?"
"It helps the donkeys."
She waved her hand in a vague gesture. "You know, around the island."
"Donkeys around the island need help?"
"Would we have a jar there if they didn't?"
"How will used stamps help these donkeys?"
"Well," she said, "the stamps wouldn't help the poor creatures if we threw them away."
"I can't argue with that."
"And that's why we have the jar."
"So as we stand here now, these used stamps are helping donkeys all over the island?"
"That's right." She slapped a "Closed" sign on the counter, shoved it toward me and pointed at the door.
I stepped outside, and my son looked up.
"You got the stamps?"
He shook his head as we hopped on our bikes. For more than an hour I chuckled to myself, pondering the mystery of stamps and donkeys.
Coastal scenes, a forest trail and suburban streets led us back to Ryde. We dropped off our bikes and caught the ferry to the mainland.
On the train to London I turned to Steve: "How did you like the Isle of Wight?"
"It was cool."
I returned to my postcards as he strapped earphones across his head. A moment later he unplugged himself and said, "I'd like to go back someday."
"Yeah. When I get old and losing my hair many years from now." He ducked as I hurled my pen at his head.
Go visit the Isle of Wight. Don't wait till you're 64.
The Wight way
From LAX, British Airways, Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic, United and American offer nonstop service to London's Heathrow Airport. Continental offers direct (no change of planes) service to Gatwick. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $538 until Oct. 29.
London Underground, 011-44-20-7222-1234, http://www.thetube.com , will take you from Heathrow Airport to Waterloo Station. Transfer to Southwest Trains, 011-44-845-6000-650, http://www.southwesttrains.co.uk , for the ride from Waterloo Station to Portsmouth Harbor.
Wightlink Ferry, 011-44-870-582-7744, http://www.wightlink.co.uk . Ferries sail regularly from Portsmouth Harbor to Ryde. The scenic trip takes 15 minutes. Transport for cars is also available.
To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international code), 44 (country code for Britain), 1983 (local code) and the number.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Royal Hotel, Belgrave Road, Ventnor, Isle of Wight; PO38 1JJ, 852-186, http://www.royalhoteliow.co.uk . Attractive 55-room hotel has picturesque gardens and outstanding views of the coastline of the Isle of Wight. Double rooms from $183.65 with breakfast; from $263.50 with breakfast and dinner.
Bugle Hotel, The Square, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight; 760-272. This Tudor inn and pub dates from the 17th century. Double rooms begin at $129 per night.
Autovogue Bike Shop, 812-989, http://www.team-autovogue.co.uk . This bike shop is a short walk from the train station. Rentals are $40 for three days and require a refundable $40 deposit. Locks are provided, but bring a helmet.
WHERE TO EAT:
Spyglass Inn, Esplanade, Ventnor, Isle of Wight; 852-775. Enjoy English classics at the Spy Glass Inn in Ventnor at the southern tip of the town's shoreline esplanade. A steak or cordon bleu chicken costs $13.
Poachers Restaurant, The Square, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, 760-272. If you're looking for fine dining, this is the place. Try one of its local fish specialties. Entrees start around $15.
TO LEARN MORE:
Visit Britain, 551 5th Ave., Suite 701, New York, N.Y 10176; (800) GOBRITAIN (462-2748). http://www.visitbritain.com/usa .
Isle of Wight Tourism, Westbridge Centre, Brading Road, Ryde, Isle of Wight, PO33 1QS; 813-818, fax 823-031, http://www.islandbreaks.co.uk .
— Joe McElwee
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